Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Nate the Great, the Musical
Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Arty's reviews of Mean Girls and Aubergine

Mari Peterson-Hilleque, Ella Freeburg and Soren Miller
Photo by Dan Norman
There is no way to deny it, Nate the Great is adorable. By that, I mean to say that the character Nate the Great, an intrepid child detective self-styled after Sherlock Holmes, the musical based on that character, named, with no subtlety, Nate the Great, the Musical, and the actor Soren Miller, who plays Nate the Great in said musical, having its Twin Cities premiere at Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development.

The book was written by John Maclay as a vehicle for young audiences, adapted from the series of twenty-nine books by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Her first Nate the Great mystery appeared in 1972, with illustrations by Marc Simont, a partnership that endure through twenty books. Starting in 1999, Sharmat changed the venue for the last nine of Nate's escapades from picture books to chapter books, releasing the last one in 2018. Sharmat died in March of this year. Her books have been popular reading nearly three generations and will no doubt continue to delight young readers and the adults who read to them for decades to come.

Maclay, past artistic director of First Stage, a children's theater in Milwaukee where Nate the Great, the Musical premiered a year ago, also wrote the musical based on the popular Goosebumps books that was given a robust production by Steppingstone two years ago. For Nate the Great, he co-wrote lyrics with Brett Ryback, who composed the show's jolly score. The plot is original, not based on any of Sharmat's books, but uses the series' familiar tropes and characters.

Nate has two loves in life: solving cases and eating pancakes. When on a case, he dons a caped trench coat (over his striped rugby shirt and plaid shorts) and deerstalker hat, the better to resemble his role model Sherlock Holmes. He also wears galoshes, but that is his mother's influence. Nate draws upon Holmes' well-known advice for detectives: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." After a rousing opening number, "I, Nate the Great," with an ensemble of trench-coated gumshoes wielding magnifying glasses with pancakes in place of lenses, Nate is about to dig into a stack of pancakes one morning when his best friend Annie calls, desperate for his help. Annie is an artist, and a painting she just finished is gone. Nate is on the case!

In Annie's room, almost all bathed in yellow, she explains why her missing painting must be found in the lovely song "Art Matters." Nate identifies three likely suspects: Annie's large dog, Fang; her four-year-old brother Harry (whose room is bathed mostly in red); and her somewhat peculiar friend Rosamund, who dresses all in black. Each is questioned, giving rise to three musical numbers, my favorite being "The Fang Tango." It turns out that Rosamund has a mystery of her own to be solved, giving Nate double duty. He is stumped and suffering the consequence of running out of the house before eating his pile of pancakes. But fear not, we know he isn't called Nate the Great for nothing.

The score by Maclay and Ryback does not offer any new-found treasurers, but is bouncy, engaging, and witty throughout. There is even one song in which they manage the impossible—finding a phrase to rhyme with "orange." Or, as Sherlock would correct me, manage the improbable. Director Mark Ferraro-Hauck clearly has a knack for working with his talented young cast, moving things forward at a steady clip. Ricky Morisseau provides choreography that allows the ensemble to shine and offer genuine entertainment.

Soren Miller is only in the ninth grade, but carries out a part with lengthy patches of dialogue, authentically creating a distinctive character along with pleasing singing and agile dancing. I am not a betting man, but if his sights are set on a career on the stage, I would place my money on him.

Mari Peterson-Hilleque is altogether earnest conveying her love of art, while Ella Freeburg projects an assertive, melodramatic persona as Rosamund—and both girls have lovely voices, full of heart. Aspen Schucker is a happily animated Fang, albeit hidden in a full-body dog costume, while Tommy Molldrem, with limited dialogue, is convincing as a bothersome younger brother. As Nate's mother, Shae Palic, the sole adult actor among the young cast, finds a comic balance point between supporting her junior gumshoe and wanting some normalcy around the house.

The cartoon-like sets designed by Tim Colby are reminiscent of Simont's picture book illustrations, with panels hung from the stand-up flats to identify the various settings, and basic furnishings—a kitchen table and chairs, a bed, an armchair, a dog-house, an easel—doing the rest. Nat Gilsdorf's lighting works well to guide the audience in following movement to different sections of the stage, and Meghan Kent's costumes are well suited to each character—particularly Nate's detective-wear and Fang's dog suit. And I will doubtless be thinking of the headgear for the big "Pancakes" number the next few times I sit down to a plate of flapjacks.

The 65-minute-long musical is intended for audiences as young as four years old. At the school-day matinee I attended, the house was full of primary grade students who all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show. The two boys in front of me were pretty wound up before the show began, and I wondered how attentive to it they would be. From the opening number on, they squirmed only once, during a slower scene when Nate's sagging morale was being given a lift. The scene was well done, but second graders can be harsh critics.

While the plot for Nate the Great, the Musical is extremely simple, the resolution turns out to be rather ingenious. Moreover, it lays out themes that make it a good basis for talking with children about thinking outside the box, about not judging people based on appearances, and about the importance of art in our lives. It can also be a prompt for introducing kids to a series of books that are funny, wholesome and upbeat. However, if you are already a Nate the Great fan, be forewarned that Nate's faithful dog Sludge, introduced in the second book of the series, does not appear in the musical.

Nate the Great, the Musical is a modest but winning way to entertain kids ages 4-10 that will keep their adult companions happily engaged. It is hardly an epic, a classic, or a crowd-pleaser, but sometimes "adorable" is just what it takes to solve the case.

Nate the Great, the Musical runs through October 13, 2019, at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults - $16.00; Seniors, children and youth - $12.00. Recommended for children age 4 and up. For tickets and information, visit or call 651-225-9265.

Book: John Maclay, based on the book series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat; Music: Brett Ryback; Lyrics: John Maclay and Brett Ryback; Director: Mark Ferraro-Hauck; Music Director: Emily Villano; Choreographer: Ricky Morisseau; Set Design and Technical Director: Tim Colby; Costume Design: Meghan Kent; Lighting Design: Nat Gilsdorf; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Props Design: Brooke Nelson; Stage Manager: Alexi Carlson; Production Manager and Assistant Director: Kivan Kirk; Assistant Stage Manager: McKenna Reedquist; Assistant Choreographer: Kate Spence; .

Cast: Ella Freeburg (Rosamund), Soren Miller (Nate), Tommy Molldrem (Harry), Shae Palic (Mom), Mari Peterson-Hilleque (Annie), Aspen Schucker (Fang). Ensemble: Emily Afdahl, Tristan Chiaokhiao, Jasmine Garry, Sarah Meek, Gavyn Nybakken, Max Perdu, Will Spangrud, Greta Stoyke.